Questions, Questions, Questions!
Scripture: Romans 9:1–9:29
I was sitting in my dorm room one night when I was in college, when one of my roommates burst through the door. He had just come from a meeting of anti-war activists on campus and he was highly agitated. I still remember his words: “Questions, questions, questions! Everyone has questions and no one has any answers!”
Those words came back to me as I was studying for my sermon this week. I thought about phoning in sick today – and letting Pastor Joe preach on this particular chapter (Romans 9). I also thought about just skipping Romans 9-11 and going straight to Romans 12. This whole section (and particularly chapter 9) is one of the most difficult and controversial passages in Romans and possibly in all of Scripture. Books have been written on it and debates have raged and continue to rage whenever it is discussed. Everyone has questions. But answers are in short supply. But whenever I contemplated such a course of action, I kept coming up against a simple statement that God has used repeatedly in my life and ministry: “I have not called you to edit my Word but to proclaim it.” So that is what I am going to do.
Structurally, Romans 9-11 is another detour in the larger outline of the book of Romans. It is another parenthesis in Paul’s logic. We saw the first in Romans 6-7. This is the second. To demonstrate that, I would point out that it is possible to read straight from the end of Romans 8 into the opening verses of chapter 12 and not know that anything was missing.
The issue that Paul discusses in these 3 chapters is Israel, the Jews, God’s chosen people. How does the gospel of justification by faith fit with the Old Testament and God’s plan and promises made to the descendants of Abraham? As such, this text is a very important passage as a kind of hinge between the Old and New Testament and how the two narratives fit together.
The reason the passage is so difficult and controversial is that it brings us face to face with one of the most puzzling and baffling paradoxes of Scripture and the universe itself and that is the interface and interaction between the absolute sovereignty of God and the responsibility and accountability we have as human beings for our own choices and actions.
While Romans 9-11 deals with these issues, I will confess that it often seems to raise as many questions as it answers, and it always stirs up a great deal of debate. In resolving this debate, I would simply repeat what I said to the men’s Bible study on Sunday morning: “Do not expect me to succeed where all others have failed.” I will not answer all your questions and neither will I satisfy you with the answers I do attempt to give. But here is what I am going to do. I am going to approach the passage rather like driving a vehicle through loose sand out in the desert. If we go slow or stop and start spinning our wheels we are certainly going to bog down and get stuck. If we keep up our speed, we at least have a chance of getting through.
Let’s begin by introducing Paul’s topic. He describes them in verse 3 as: “My brothers, my kinsmen according to the flesh.” He then goes on to add:
They are Israelites, and to them belong the adoption, the glory, the covenants, the giving of the law, the worship, and the promises. 5 To them belong the patriarchs, and from their race, according to the flesh, is the Christ who is God over all, blessed forever. Amen.
This is not only a good description of the Israelites, but it is a masterful summary of the whole Old Testament. As I read these verses, I am carried back to a series of messages I did on the Pentateuch. I find myself standing again at the foot of Mt. Sinai as the glory of God descended on the mountain with peal of trumpets and the rolling of thunder and the flashing of lightning as God came down to seal his special covenant relationship with Israel and adopted them as his own special people. I see Moses descending from the mountain with the tablets of stone on which God had inscribed the Ten Commandments with his own finger. I am reminded of the detailed beauty of the earthly tabernacle, the place of worship, with all the careful regulations of worship and sacrifice. I am reminded of God’s promises to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob of a seed, a descendant through whom God would bless the entire world. And I am even carried into the New Testament and particularly the story of Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem as the people cried out “Hosanna to the Son of David!”
What a glorious inheritance! And yet, Paul acknowledges, his own heart is now filled with unceasing sorrow for his people. And so Paul asks the question; the awful, unthinkable question. Has God’s word failed? Was God simply another politician, making promises he could not fulfill? Was all of that for nothing?
To this implied and painful question, Paul answers clearly in verse 6 and first part of verse 7:
But it is not as though the word of God has failed. For not all who are descended from Israel belong to Israel, 7 and not all are children of Abraham because they are his offspring…
Paul addresses the question squarely and shows that a careful reading of the Old Testament reveals that God never promised salvation to everyone who was physically descended from Abraham. He first goes to the story of Abraham and his two sons: Ishmael and Isaac. They were both physically descended from Abraham, but God’s promise was clearly made to Isaac. Let’s pick up the reading again in the second half of verse 7:
but “Through Isaac shall your offspring be named.” 8 This means that it is not the children of the flesh who are the children of God, but the children of the promise are counted as offspring. 9 For this is what the promise said: “About this time next year I will return, and Sarah shall have a son.”
If that example were not enough, he goes on to the next generation; to the sons of Isaac:
And not only so, but also when Rebekah had conceived children by one man, our forefather Isaac, 11 though they were not yet born and had done nothing either good or bad—in order that God’s purpose of election might continue, not because of works but because of him who calls— 12 she was told, “The older will serve the younger.” 13 As it is written, “Jacob I loved, but Esau I hated.”
Now, let us be clear what Paul is saying here. He is simply reinforcing his basic point, which is that God’s word has not failed, because God’s promises never extended to every physical descendant of Abraham. He is citing the Old Testament and Jewish history to make that point. Clearly, Isaac played a different role in God’s unfolding plan than Ishmael, although both were physical sons of Abraham. Clearly Jacob was blessed in a way that Esau was not, even though both were not only physical sons of Isaac, but actually twins. Yet one was preferred over the other, and contrary to human expectation, it was not the older, but the younger who was blessed.
Let me just make a brief comment on verse 13: “Jacob I loved, but Esau I hated.” This verse should not be taken to apply to the two individuals involved, but to the two nations or races which descended from them. Paul is continuing to make his argument that not all physical descendants of Abraham were included in God’s plan. The verse is a quotation from the Old Testament and the book of Malachi. In that book, God is seeking to demonstrate his love for the nation of Israel and he does so by comparing the history of the two nations.
2 “I have loved you,” says the Lord. But you say, “How have you loved us?” “Is not Esau Jacob’s brother?” declares the Lord. “Yet I have loved Jacob 3 but Esau I have hated. I have laid waste his hill country and left his heritage to jackals of the desert.”
In other words, God is saying is saying to Israel, if you doubt my love for you as a nation, compare your history with the history of Esau’s descendants. Esau and Jacob were brothers, yet their history and the history of their descendants followed very different paths. Clearly, not all of Abraham’s descendants were included in the promise.
So, if physical descent is not enough, what was the distinguishing factor? It is here that our human reasoning and sensibilities are in for a shock. If we were writing this account, we would be quick to cite a human element – one was good and the other was bad, one worked hard and the other did not, one was more righteous than the other. Yet Paul says no such thing. In fact he contradicts our reasoning. The blessing of God and the transmission of the Messianic line was based on three things, according to Paul. It was based on God’s promise, it was founded in God’s choice, God’s election, and it was transmitted by God’s call. Not only that, but the promise and the election were delivered, declared and established before the children involved were even born. The promise was delivered to Abraham before Sarah conceived. The pronouncement concerning Jacob and Esau was made while they were in the womb. It was not based on works but on the sovereignty of God.
Now, let’s pause here a moment to recap. Paul is addressing the question: Has God’s word failed? Has the plan of God for the descendants of Abraham failed because the nation as a whole has rejected Jesus as Messiah and turned away from him? In very broad terms, Paul’s answer is, “No. God’s word has not failed because God never said that every physical descendant of Abraham would inherit the spiritual promises of Abraham.” And he has supported that answer with quotations and examples from the Old Testament and the history of Abraham’s descendants. Before we go on, let’s not miss the primary point Paul is making in this opening section. God’s Word has not failed. God’s Word never fails. As Isaiah declares in Isaiah 40:8: The grass withers, the flower fades, but the word of our God will stand forever.
But now, Paul recognizes that in answering one question and addressing one difficulty, he has in fact raised another question in the minds of his readers. Here it is: Is God unjust? Or to phrase it precisely, “Is there injustice on God’s part?” This is the question Paul takes up in verse 14: What shall we say then? Is there injustice on God’s part?
This is the question that springs immediately to our minds in light of what he has just said about Jacob and Esau. Paul’s answer is immediate and emphatic: By no means! There is no injustice on God’s part. The Scripture is clear on this point. Listen to the words of Deuteronomy 32:3-4 (reading from the NIV): I will proclaim the name of the Lord. O praise the greatness of our God! He is the Rock, his ways are perfect and all his ways are just. A faithful God who does no wrong, upright and just is he.”
So the Scripture declares the justice of God. God is never unjust. But what, exactly, is justice? The word is related to the word “righteous” and as we saw earlier in Romans, righteous means right according to some rule or legal standard. So when we talk about the justice of God we are saying that he always judges people according to this standard of righteousness. By declaring God’s justice, we know that God will never condemn the innocent. He will never punish anyone who does not deserve to be punished. He will treat everyone as well as they deserve to be treated by the law.
Let’s go back to see how this is described earlier in Romans. In Romans 2:6-7, we find:
He will render to each one according to his works: 7 to those who by patience in well-doing seek for glory and honor and immortality, he will give eternal life;
This is the positive side of God’s justice. He will not condemn or judge the innocent or the righteous. He will give them eternal life. But there is another side to God’s justice as verse 8 goes on to tell us:
but for those who are self-seeking and do not obey the truth, but obey unrighteousness, there will be wrath and fury. 9 There will be tribulation and distress for every human being who does evil.
That is the other side of God’s justice. He will judge the wicked; those who have not lived up to his commandments and his righteousness.
God is never unjust. But here we must walk a careful line in following Paul’s reasoning. Let’s continue reading in Romans 9:15:
15 For he says to Moses, “I will have mercy on whom I have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I have compassion.” 16 So then it depends not on human will or exertion, but on God, who has mercy. 17 For the Scripture says to Pharaoh, “For this very purpose I have raised you up, that I might show my power in you, and that my name might be proclaimed in all the earth.” 18 So then he has mercy on whomever he wills, and he hardens whomever he wills.
Listen carefully to the balance of God’s truth: God is never unjust, but he is sovereign in his bestowal of mercy. To understand this truth, we must hear this and hear it clearly. God owes justice to everyone. God owes mercy to no one. Mercy, by its very definition, cannot be demanded as a right or an obligation. Mercy means suspending judgment and not giving someone the punishment they deserve. Therefore it cannot be demanded, because in asking for mercy, we are admitting that we deserve judgment. It is essential that we understand this.
People who have heard Christian teaching about the mercy of God sometimes get this wrong. In the muddled thinking of our day, many have come to presume on the mercy of God as something that is ours by right; something we can demand. I remember reading an account of a famous atheist. He spent his life railing against the existence of God. But on his deathbed, apparently he began to have second thoughts. On his deathbed, he was heard to mutter the words; “God will forgive. It’s his job!”
It is essential to Paul’s argument here to understand that God does not owe mercy to anyone. He does not owe it to the Jews. He does not owe it to the Gentiles. He does not owe it to you because you are an American, or a Briton, or a South African or an Arab. He doesn’t owe it to you because you come from a Christian family or because you go to church or because you are religious. God owes justice to all. He owes mercy to no one. God is never unjust, but he is sovereign in his bestowal of mercy.
I am not going to try to explain this or even defend it. I am simply going to proclaim it, for the Scripture proclaims it. God says:
“I will have mercy on whom I have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I have compassion.” 16 So then it depends not on human will or exertion, but on God, who has mercy.
A question burns in our minds at this point. Paul does not shy away from it. He raises it himself in verse 19: You will say to me then, “Why does he still find fault? For who can resist his will?”
Paul’s answer to that question is blunt and simple – but maybe not very satisfying. Look at verses 20-21:
But who are you, O man, to answer back to God? Will what is molded say to its molder, “Why have you made me like this?” 21 Has the potter no right over the clay, to make out of the same lump one vessel for honorable use and another for dishonorable use?
Ultimately, Paul says, we don’t have the right to ask that question. God is sovereign in his bestowal of mercy. He is the potter. We are the clay. But let us be careful to understand the nuances of what Paul is saying here. Let me flesh it out with Paul’s words in verses 22-23:
What if God, desiring to show his wrath and to make known his power, has endured with much patience vessels of wrath prepared for destruction, 23 in order to make known the riches of his glory for vessels of mercy, which he has prepared beforehand for glory—
Let me point out some distinctions in the original vocabulary here. In verse 22, we see the words “vessels of wrath prepared for destruction” and in verse 23 we see the phrase “vessels of mercy, which he has prepared beforehand for glory.” I want to point out that the word “prepared” in verse 22 is a completely different word than the one translated “prepared” in verse 23. They are also different in grammatical form. The word “prepared” in verse 22 is passive in form. There is no stated actor. And the word meaning is that of something that is fitted and appropriate for a particular use and function. We are not told how it arrived at that state, only that it is in that state of being fit for destruction. In verse 23, the word is active. God is the subject of the verb, and he is seen as actively preparing or making vessels ready for glory.
So let us be careful here to see what Paul is not saying as well as what he is saying, because it is easy to go astray. Paul is NOT saying that all people are inherently neutral objects, clay that is neither good nor bad, and that God comes along and chooses some of this neutral clay and from it, he takes some and prepares vessels for destruction and from it he takes some and prepares vessels for glory.
What Paul DOES say (if we keep all of Romans in mind) is that the clay is not neutral. We are all, by nature, vessels fitted and deserving of destruction. But God, in his sovereignty, has chosen some who were fit for destruction, and he prepared them for glory in order to display his grace and his mercy. He is sovereign. He is the potter. He has the right to do that. God is sovereign in his granting of mercy.
Let me put it another way. In eternity, there will be no one in Hell who does not fully deserve to be there. That is the guarantee of God’s justice. On the other hand, Heaven will be populated by people like you and me who deserve God’s judgment; who deserve to be in Hell. That is the promise of God’s mercy. And God is sovereign in his bestowal of that mercy. And the marvel of this doctrine, in Paul’s eyes, is not that many are lost, but that any are saved. The emphasis of Paul’s understanding of God’s elective grace is not that some are left out, but the wonder that any are included. And those that are included are both Gentiles and Jews as he goes on to record in the remaining verses in our text:
even us whom he has called, not from the Jews only but also from the Gentiles? 25 As indeed he says in Hosea, “Those who were not my people I will call ‘my people,’ and her who was not beloved I will call ‘beloved.’ ” 26 “And in the very place where it was said to them, ‘You are not my people,’ there they will be called ‘sons of the living God.’ 27 And Isaiah cries out concerning Israel: “Though the number of the sons of Israel be as the sand of the sea, only a remnant of them will be saved, 28 for the Lord will carry out his sentence upon the earth fully and without delay.” 29 And as Isaiah predicted, “If the Lord of hosts had not left us offspring, we would have been like Sodom and become like Gomorrah.”
I would highlight here that Paul has also gone back to where he began the chapter: Has God’s Word failed? Once again, he uses Old Testament Scripture to demonstrate that the inclusion of Gentiles in salvation and the fact that only a Jewish remnant would be saved were clearly prophesied in Scripture, and that all who are included in the plan of God as vessels of his mercy, are included because God himself has called them. God is sovereign in his bestowal of mercy.
So, does this truth make all men simply pawns in the hands of a capricious God? Not at all. For here is where the paradox of God’s truth lies. Paul will follow this presentation on God’s sovereignty in the work of salvation with Romans 10 in which he will emphasize man’s responsibility and a ringing and universal offer of God’s mercy to anyone who believes.
To put it simplistically, Romans 9 looks at salvation and the lostness of man from God’s viewpoint. Chapter 10 will look at it from man’s viewpoint. To our finite view, these two seem ultimately to contradict one another. Yet God consistently presents both views side by side.
The renowned preacher Charles Spurgeon was once asked how he reconciled the doctrine of God’s sovereignty with man’s responsibility. He responded, “I never try to reconcile friends.”
Well, that’s enough to think about and meditate on for this week. Let me just remind you of the main points of truth that have been clearly proclaimed in this chapter.
God’s Word has not failed. God’s Word never fails. His truth stands and will stand for all eternity.
God is not unjust. While we may not always understand or even agree with the way God runs his universe, we have this clear proclamation. God is not and never can be unjust. As Abraham declared with his rhetorical question, “Shall not the Judge of all the earth do right?”
God is sovereign in his bestowal of mercy. God owes justice to all, but he does not owe mercy. It is his to give as, when, and to whom he chooses to give it.
So there we will leave it. Have I answered all your questions? I recognize that I have not.
Have I said things today that made you feel uncomfortable? I probably have.
I could hide behind the fact that we are not finished. And we are not. And I hope you will come back over the next few weeks as we continue our study. But I am all too aware that when we have finished our study, I will still not have answered all your questions and you will still probably feel a certain degree of puzzlement, uncertainty and even discomfort.
The reality is that we are face to face in these chapters with mystery, for in fact we are face to face with God. Our human tendency is to crave a God whom we understand and who marches to our beat and who fulfills our expectations and obeys our rules. We view the world through a man-centered portal. But the universe is not, ultimately, man-centered. It is God centered. For too long, we human beings have tried to create God in our image and make him answerable to us. But such a God is not the true God, but an idol of our own making. The true God refuses to be confined in a box. He refuses to conform to our expectations or even to answer all our questions. By his own grace and will he has chosen to reveal himself to us. But in his revelation, he does not feel any obligation to explain himself, nor does he seek our approval. The ultimate reality is this. He is God. And we are not. He does not answer to us. It is we who answer to him.
As the mysterious God of the universe, he reveals to us this marvelous truth. He is even now calling out for himself a people; Those who were not my people I will call ‘my people”, and her who was not beloved I will call ‘beloved.” And in the very place where it was said to them, ‘You are not by people,” there they will be called ‘sons and daughters of the living God. He is even now preparing us as “vessels of his mercy” in order to “make known the riches of his glory.” All we need to do to be included among God’s vessels of mercy is to heed the voice of his calling and respond by faith. For this same God who declares his sovereignty in election; the same God who declares that he chose us before the foundation of the world is the same God who has given us the Gospel and declares that this gospel is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes.
And so I conclude this sermon the same way I have concluded so many sermons from the Book of Romans. With this simple question: Do you believe?
QUESTIONS FOR THOUGHT AND DISCUSSION
What do you find most puzzling and/or troubling in this passage?
How does Paul address the question: Has God’s Word failed?
How does Paul answer the question: Is there injustice with God?
How does Paul answer the question: Why does God still find fault?
Which of these answers satisfy you? Which do not?
When asked how he reconciled the doctrine of God’s sovereignty with the doctrine of man’s responsibility, Charles Spurgeon answered, “I never try to reconcile friends.” What do you think he meant? Do you agree or disagree?